Slamming down injustice: an interview with award-winning poet Ainee Fatima

Award-winning slam poet Ainee Fatima spoke to Altmuslimah’s Shazia K. Farook about being featured in one of the most popular mainstream teen magazines
today, “Seventeen.” Ainee talks poetry, love, and her social justice pursuits.
 You are an award-winning slam poet and artist. What brought you into this world of rhyme? How does it connect to your activism?

Ainee Fatima: I attended Islamic School while I was in middle school and I began to write because I needed a form of escape. As a high school student, I wrote more and more poetry which led my English teacher to suggest that I join the high school’s slam team. I didn’t know there was such a thing! And the idea of sharing my deeply personal lyrics frightened me; I didn’t know how others would react, but I continued writing, rehearsing and performing until I gained the confidence to perform on stage.

Once I started performing, I saw that my words resonated with young Muslim women, as well as many non-Muslims. My poetry gave non-Muslims access to a Muslim woman’s at a time when we are largely seen as submissive and marginalized by their own religion. Simply sharing your personal stories and experiences helps you connect with others without having to make obvious statements like “we’re not oppressed,” which usually fall flat.

 You’ve been featured as the first woman wearing a hijab in Seventeen
Magazine. What does it say about the future of how women are depicted in mainstream magazines?

Ainee Fatima: Growing up, I suffered from an identity crisis as an Indian-American Muslim girl. I think many South Asians can relate to the difficulty of straddling two worlds. You desperatly want to fit in with your friends at school, while holding on to your culture and religion at a time in your life when being different comes at a cost. I cannot tell you the number of times I was called “curry” or “Hindu” by kids in school, even by fellow South Asians who refused to identify as South Asian because they knew the stigma attached to this label.

Television, movies and magazines only compounded the problem. They all held the same standard of beauty—tall, white, thin girls with blue eyes and blonde hair. Then there was us—short, brown, chubby and hairy with dark brown eyes and black hair. We could not even manage to find a place within in our own communities where light skin and a slim build was coveted as beautiful even more than in western society. I yearned to flip through a magazine and see a relatable face and shape looking back at me. Little did I know that I would be the one fulfilling my own wish!

Alhumdulillah, there are publications produced by and featuring Muslim women, but to be spotlighted in an internationally recognized fashion magazine as a Muslim woman who chooses to cover herself was a big deal. Finally, some representation! In fact, I had many mothers say that they bought the magazine for their daughters because they hoped that when these girls looked at me, they would aspire to achieve the same goals.

 Tell us about Chime for Change and your involvement in this cause, which has high-profile supporters like Beyoncé.

Ainee Fatima: Chime for Change is a movement that looks to invest in women. It focuses on three main issues: health, justice and education for young women around the world. The advisory board features three other influential Muslim women who are helping organize this campaign: Muna Abusulayman, Yasmeen Hassan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

 Given the pre-teen to teenage readership of Seventeen, what advice do you have for young women reading this mag?

Ainee Fatima: Love yourself and educate yourself. There is nothing more powerful than a woman who knows her worth.

 What are your career plans?

Ainee Fatima: I’m majoring in Islamic World Studies and International Relations. I’m planning to use my degree for community relations, international relations and diplomacy. There are two people who I’d like to model my own career after. My first inspiration is Farah Pandith who was appointed the first-ever U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities in 2009 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Under Secretary John Kerry, this office continues to be responsible for executing a vision for engagement with Muslims around the world on a people-to-people and organizational level. My second inspiration is Rashad Hussain, a hafiz of the Qur’an and a lawyer who Barack Obama named special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a job in which he tries to build partnerships between the U.S. and the Muslim world. I hope to follow similar paths.

 Being in the business of telling women’s’ stories of women, particularly injustices against women, can you tell us about an instance where you changed someone’s mind about an issue? And what is the most memorable thing anyone has said to you after a performance?

Ainee Fatima: The year my team and I had won “Louder than a Bomb” in 2009, I performed a poem that spoke about the struggle of having to choose between one’s desires and following one’s religion and culture. I used falling in love as my desire because it was something I could relate to as a high school student, a time when your hormones going crazy! The poem spoke about how candidly discussing the concept of romantic love remains taboo within my South Asian family and culture where most marriages are arranged by the parents. After we won, a Muslim woman emailed my coach saying, “I’m in my mid-40s but as a Muslim woman, I could have never done what your poet did on that stage, especially coming from a culture where it’s frowned upon to speak about falling in love before marriage.” Her compliment hit home for me. It was electrifying to know that an older woman was looking up to me, an 18 year-old at the time!

 The next Presidential election is in three years. Where do you think
the American Muslim community will be in terms of civic engagement?

I hope that the American Muslim community becomes more involved with their local and state government. I understand there’s an apprehension when it comes to working with those who are targeting places back home. But becoming active in the decision-making process, the political process is the only way to have a voice in issues that directly affect us and our native countries. There are too few Muslim politicians and I know it’s a hard path to follow, but Islam is a religion that encourages community leadership.

Shazia Kamal Farook is an Associate Editor at and studies International Affairs at Georgetown University.

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